Paige Toon interview: Why I love writing from the back of my campervan
When Paige Toon writes her romantic novels she is often overlooking beautiful scenery from the back of her campervan, Hermie.
The Cambridge authro has travelled all over in the van with her husband and family as part of her research for setting for her novels and it even features in one of her books.
But during lockdown it has been her home office and she has reason to feel smug about the set up.
Paige says: “We bought this 22-year-old Mercedes camper van a few years ago. And when we went to Cornwall on a camping trip to Padstow I was thinking about the idea for one of my earlier books, the Last Piece of my Heart. We arrived at the campsite and I realised I had to set it there. So this campervan has been very important to my writing.
“But the van broke down so many times that eventually we retired it to the bottom of the garden and bought a brand new one. Now, Hermie has become my writing studio. I go and sit there to look across the fields and get inspiration.
“It was so funny because our next door neighbour had been building a home office for months and months and my husband just put Hermie at the end of the garden and it had electricity and a fridge, you could make a cup of tea. It worked instantly - I started writing in it immediately.
“We have a new campervan which we have driven around Europe. We went to Norway last summer and we are heading to Devon this year but Hermie is permanently in the garden as my writing studio now.”
The camper vans have come in handy for travelling to see possible locations for Paige’s novels as she likes to set them in beautiful places.
She says: “I like to travel to do research. I have two ideas for my next book which I need to research and decide between. One of them is set in Devon in farmland and we are going there next week and the other one is set on a tropical island. That would be really nice to do research for, but it may have to be based on previous trips.”
This time her new novel, Someone I Used To Know, has taken her to Yorkshire, where her husband’s parents still live, and her heroine lives in the shadow of the famous National Trust site Brimham Rocks.
Standing on the overhanging rocks, Paige was inspired to imagine the alpaca farm where her heroine Leah lived when she was growing up and even discovered a heart shaped pool in the rocks that plays a crucial role in the novel.
She says: “My husband is from East Yorkshire and I have been going there with him for half my life. So, Brimham Rocks is one of my favourite places in the whole world - it is absolutely stunning. We have been there quite a few times and I'm just so fond of Yorkshire. I had the idea for this book several years ago and I knew it was going to be set in Yorkshire long before Covid made it difficult to travel to international places. Yorkshire is almost a second home for me.
“So we drove there on a research trip during Covid times in August 2020. My husband and I did research while the kids stayed with their grandparents. We walked around Brimham a lot and we climbed onto this overhang and looked over the valley and these farms. I was able to stand there and soak it up and imagine where they would be living and imagine the alpaca farm that the characters lived at. Funnily enough later I found out there was an alpaca farm near Brimham Rocks but I didn't know what at the time and I did all my alpaca research with a local Cambridgeshire farmer.”
Paige explains that she chose to set the book at an alpaca farm as then the animals wouldn't have to be slaughtered.
The story centres on Leah, who has returned to the farm where she grew up after a family tragedy. Her parents had been foster carers throughout her teenage years and many children had lived at the farm.
At fifteen, George is the foster brother Leah never asked for. As the angry, troubled boy struggles to come to terms with his circumstances and the fact that his younger sister has been adopted while he was left in the care system, Leah finds herself getting drawn closer to him.
Meanwhile her neighbour Theo’s wealthy family have mysteriously pulled him out of boarding school and he’s now enrolled at the local state school with Leah and George. When their worlds collide that summer, the three teenagers form a bond they believe will be unbreakable. But in the present day it seems life has not gone to plan.
Shocking news brings Leah back to Yorkshire, with her baby daughter in tow. But the baby’s father Theo isn’t with them, and George has unexpectedly returned.
The subject of fostering was something that Paige felt could bring another emotional dimension to her story.
She says: “I did a lot of research about fostering. I spoke to foster parents and someone who grew up with parents who fostered other children but so much of it was just my imagination. I wanted it to be fictional. I didn't feel comfortable lifting stories of children from any research, so that is almost entirely my imagination.”
However, it was speaking to a barrister that gave her an idea that would be central to her book.
“She told me it's so often the case that the younger siblings are put up for adoption and the older brothers and sisters are put into the care system and they become separated. So few people want to foster teenagers who are dealing with hormones and anxiety. People think younger children can be shaped a bit more. I just found that absolutely heartbreaking, the idea of these kids being separated from their brothers and sisters and my friend told me that when they come out of care rather than trying to find their biological parents often they try to find their siblings. So that's how the idea for George and his younger sister formed. I wanted to shine a light on that scenario. I found it so sad that they couldn't be kept together somehow.”
Paige also wanted to create a family with inspirational foster parents, who could inspire other people to consider the role. She says; “If there was any chance of someone reading the book and thinking that's the kind of foster parent I would want to be and be inspired to do it for love, that would be wonderful. I really wanted it to be an uplifting positive message about fostering.”
George is fostered by Leah’s parents when they are both teenagers. Any kind of relationship between them at the time would have been completely forbidden, but they became close friends.
Paige says: “George is her foster brother so she knows she can't have a relationship with someone living under her own rood because he will just get moved on to another family so she knows she cant take anything further with George even though she is falling for him and there are moments where they could kiss she backs right off because if her parents were to find out he would definitely have to move to a different foster family and she can't bear for that to happen. I love that torturous yearning.”
Meanwhile Theo is her neighbour, and the one she ends up marrying by the start of the book. “I call them both my beautiful broken boys,” says Paige, “because they are both so troubled in their own way.
“When I had this idea for the story originally it was all about love and care. From the outset it looks like Theo has it all. He lives in this amazing estate with a mansion. His father is one of the wealthy local landowners but he doesn't really get any care from his father and his mother has passed away.”
But at the start of the book, although Leah has married Theo he isn’t with her when she returns to Yorkshire.
Paige says: “I love writing a love triangle. It's the first love triangle I have written in a long time. It was nice to toy with those emotions of forbidden love and unrequited love - it's always an emotive storyline to write.”
Recently Paige has done some branding for her books, with the tagline “Feel It All.”
She says this is because her books give readers an emotional experience: “My books are more emotional than some women’s fiction, so I wanted to get it across that if you pick up my books you will live vicariously through the characters and you will feel these emotions of love, heartache, passion and grief. In so many of my reviews readers say how my books make them feel. So I wanted new readers to know that my books are emotional reads and impossible love stories but still light hearted enough to read at the beach.”
Although she loves writing romance, Paige has been drawn to writing in another genre and says she may even publish it under a pseudonym as it is so different from what her loyal readers expect from her.
“I’m undecided about whether I would publish under my name or a pseudonym because if you do that you get a fresh start. I don’t know if my current readers would want to read something so different from me,” she says.
“I’m thinking about self publishing because I have written a chunk of this book. I came up with the idea ten years ago and I have been writing it in between work on other books. It's set in the future where this character lives at a time when there is cryogenic freezing that you can do when someone is alive and then unfreeze them in the future. This character has an incurable disease so makes the decision to be frozen until a cure can be found. She assumes it might be within the next ten years.
“But instead she wakes up 125 years later when a virus has been through humanity and the vaccine which has been rushed out very quickly has made everyone who took it infertile. So she, like the thousands of other people who have been frozen for decades, is being brought back to repopulate the world. It's strange that I thought of this so many years ago and I’m writing this story now about a virus.”
The story does sound completely different from her usual genre but, Paige points out: “I would like to have a go at writing different genres alongside women’s fiction. I love writing fantasy because that opens up a whole new world of possible love stories.”
- Someone I Used to Know is published this week.